New Companies Seek Competitive Edge in LMS Market
Companies old and new are jockeying for position in the unsettled market for learning-management systems, seeking to innovate and fulfill districts' evolving needs
Don McIntosh has been cataloging the learning-management-system industry for nearly two decades.
And since creating "Vendors of Learning Management and E-Learning Products," an evolving document that logs creations and changes in the K-12, postsecondary, and corporate LMS markets, it's grown from the size of a book report to that of a decent-sized novel.
"It's getting to be such a huge list that it's beginning to lose its usefulness," laments McIntosh, the president of Trimeritus eLearning Solutions, an education consulting group based in Burnaby, British Columbia. "The idea was that it would provide a tool for people to select an LMS. But the list is so long now that it doesn't help them. You can't issue requests for proposal to everyone on the list."
Industry followers say the continuing entrance of new LMS creators may signal transition, and not stability, and it may mean the sector is becoming one in which new entrants have real opportunities to leap ahead of established players.
As a ballooning number of school districts use or explore blended learning, and a growing cadre of full-time virtual schools embrace more sophisticated instructional methods, the battle for LMS providers appears no longer to be how many features they can provide school consumers, but finding the right ones for the right institutions.
Further, what once appeared to be an unbridgeable chasm between the world of proprietary systems, where the software was copyrighted by the vendor, and open-source systems, where any user can alter software for specific needs, is now but a blurry line after proprietary giant Blackboard Inc.'s recent purchase of open-source software developers Moodlerooms and NetSpot.
Some observers have even suggested the learning-management system will become an obsolete technology, while others say the LMS of the future will at least look considerably different as online and blended learning continues to shift toward providing students with personally tailored programs.
"If you look at all those needs and increased customization that comes with it, that is more than what has been in the traditional LMS," says Matthew Wicks, the chief operating officer for the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, and a former online learning consultant. "I haven't seen any one vendor emerge as far as putting all of those pieces together."
The LMS pieces themselves aren't as rigidly defined as they used to be.
Conventionally speaking, a learning-management system is the software on which the online portion of any partially or fully virtual course is delivered, documented, and reported. A content-management system is the software on which Web content is organized, edited, and published, and a learning-content-management system is a CMS used specifically for educational purposes.
As the field has developed, some companies—such as Washington-based Blackboard and Desire2Learn Inc., of Kitchener, Ontario—have grown to offer both LMS and CMS products. And as schools look for systems that fit their particular approaches to course delivery, many vendors offer products with features that blur the LMS-CMS line.
A few companies are progressing toward products that fully mesh the LMS and the CMS, says McIntosh, including iVersity, of Berlin, and Pearson, of London, through its new, free OpenClass system. With an increasingly wide swath of the schools in the United States embracing online or blended learning in some form, McIntosh says the demand for simpler, more unified products that combine both features will only increase.
But there is still plenty to improve upon in the iVersity and Pearson products, he says. In the case of Pearson, which is also recognized as one of the "Big Three" textbook publishers, he says those improvements may not come until designers of an LMS-CMS hybrid look at such a tool as more than a way to drive users to their content.
"I think Pearson's goal is to sell their textbooks and to use [OpenClass] as a way to sell the books, either online or in print," McIntosh says of the tool. "It's kind of like a service they are providing to enhance the sale of their textbooks."
The worlds of open-source and proprietary learning-management systems also appear to be converging, which may partly explain why Blackboard bought Moodlerooms and NetSpot, two companies that sell learning-management software built upon the open-source Moodle LMS.
Historically, some experts say, commercial LMS vendors have worked mainly with entire virtual schools and other institutions that are implementing online learning in a broad, systematic fashion. Meanwhile, Moodle users have often been early-adopting, tech-savvy teachers looking for a more affordable way to manage content within their own classrooms and not necessarily across classroom walls.
Perhaps heartened by the successes of early adopters, more superintendents and principals are beginning to explore components of virtual or blended learning on a schoolwide level. And while open-source systems can be a good fit for a blended classroom where content is coming from a range of free and proprietary sources, the challenges of unifying student data, providing system security, and maintaining an open-source LMS can be daunting.
"Open educational resources are really only useful to a smaller subset of the market than we talk about," says Myk Garn, the director of education for the Southern Regional Education Board, a 16-state group based in Atlanta.
"We've learned that this stuff has to be enterprise-class," he says, meaning the software must be fast and highly reliable. "No matter how innovative you are, that ain't cheap, and it takes serious people doing it."
Moodlerooms and NetSpot are among the companies that specialize in providing support to schools that want to use an open-source LMS, Moodle, on a systemwide scale, but even they struggle to keep up with the increasingly diverse school and district needs, says Moodlerooms' chief executive officer, Lou Pugliese.
Given trends like the increase in mobile-learning, social-networking, and adaptive-learning tools in education, he says, his company's acquisition by Blackboard reflects an industry sentiment that what's best for business is to collaborate across vendor lines.
"We're moving toward a more vendor-neutral environment where we're trying to serve the marketplace better," Pugliese says. "I think the customer is much better served to the extent you can manage the chasm between an open-source and proprietary system."
McIntosh, of Trimeritus eLearning Solutions, adds that, despite the size of his growing document cataloging the LMS industry, Blackboard, as a nearly universally accepted leader in the field, can single-handedly shift its direction.
"The reality is that they dominate the whole sector," McIntosh says.
Most observers appear to agree with McIntosh's assessment, but some wonder whether that influence is a progressive force or one that is simply good for business.
Garn, for one, points to previous acquisitions made by Blackboard as hindering evolution in the industry because reorganization efforts diverted attention from product development. In June 2010, Blackboard acquired the synchronous-online-learning companies Elluminate and Wimba after purchasing the educational software company ANGEL Inc. just over a year earlier.
"I've been working with companies for 10 to 12 years now, and every two to three years one of them gets acquired by Blackboard," says Garn. "The churning of the learning management systems and the LMS situation is a drag on productivity for the institutions, colleges, and the schools."
Brett Frazier, the senior vice president of Blackboard Learn, the company's primary LMS offering, disagrees. He says the inclusion of new open-source options under the Blackboard umbrella will help schools that, in tight budgetary times, are trying to figure out how best to utilize the technology they have to create opportunities for online and blended learning.
"School districts have a lot of stuff they have purchased over the past few years," Frazier says. "To us right now, it's actually about how you use the stuff you have or how you are wise with what little funds you have."
Catalysts for Change?
Others say that while the acquisition may help Blackboard, Moodlerooms, and NetSpot become more flexible in satisfying immediate demands from schools, a more dramatic shift in the nature of the learning-management system will likely come from a different company.
Edward Mansouri, the president of Ucompass, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based LMS provider, says he believes his company has a chance to be that catalyst.
At an invitation-only event at the Virtual School Symposium in Indianapolis last November, Mansouri unveiled the company's Octane product, which essentially aims to restructure the relationship between course administration and content delivery.
Basically, Octane gives users the option of writing individual tools into their content that are typically found within an LMS, such as phone directories, instant-messaging applications, social-networking functions, webinar-hosting tools, and student-performance-measuring instruments, Mansouri says. Unlike with an LMS, Octane users need only write in the tools that they find necessary, since they are hosted remotely instead of within LMS software.
"The mechanics of being able to have the focus just on the functionality needed, … that, in and of itself, is a huge benefit because you're minimizing clicks, cognitive overhead, [and] technical overhead," says Mansouri, who acknowledges that the new product is a departure from Ucompass' previous work in the LMS sector.
"We got pretty wrapped up in what we thought was good functionality and what we thought was useful, but it seemed there was a pattern of what people expected to be able to do," he adds.
The 122,000-student Florida Virtual School, based in Orlando, has for years partnered with Ucompass, and now has gradually implemented some Octane tools in its courses. As of March, the school has included a tool that allows students to rate the effectiveness of pieces of content in all but seven of its course offerings—a rating that could be used by teachers to determine future instruction.
Although the Florida Virtual School has been slower to integrate other features into its content, its senior manager of product development, Jennifer Whiting, says she believes the tool, which is built on coding abilities that have existed for at least five years, will transform the LMS field.
"I think Ucompass has a handle on how to take ideas out in the marketplace and turn them into a product that can just revolutionize things," Whiting says.
"You could say, 'Why didn't anyone think of the iPhone before?' " Whiting adds, comparing the watershed Apple mobile phone to Octane. "It's that kind of innovation. It's that kind of leap."
Vol. 05, Issue 03, Pages 4, 32, 34, 36Published in Print: June 13, 2012, as New Companies Seek Competitive Edge in LMS Market
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